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The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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Plot Summary

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth plot summary and analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of stories The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales | Plot Summary

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The Canterbury Tales start with a prologue that frames, or sets the stage for, the tales that follow. Spring has come, and with it an increase in pilgrims traveling to Canterbury to visit the shrine of the martyred Saint Thomas Becket. A group of pilgrims assemble at the Tabard Inn just outside of London to start their journey. The Host of the Tabard Inn, a man named Harry Bailey, joins the company on the pilgrimage, as does a pilgrim named Chaucer. Harry Bailey suggests a tale-telling competition to help pass the time on the long road, and the company agrees.

With the exception of Chaucer and Harry Bailey (who is often called simply the "Host"), none of the other pilgrims are named. Instead they are identified by their roles. The Knight tells the first tale. He recounts a long story about two knights who fall in love with the same woman. The men fight for her, and one wins her. However, he soon dies, and the other knight marries her instead.

The Miller decides to tell the next story. It is a funny, crude story about an old carpenter who has a young wife. Two young men fall in love with her, and she conspires with one of them to meet for sex. On the night they meet, the other young man comes to her window, and in the dark he is tricked into kissing her bare behind. Most of the pilgrims enjoy this comical story, but the Reeve, a carpenter, is offended, so he pays the Miller back by telling a story about a dishonest miller. In this story two students decide to make sure this dishonest miller does not steal any of the grain as it is being ground. In another middle-of-the-night mix-up, one of the students has sex with the miller's daughter, and the other has sex with the miller's wife.

Next the Cook begins to tell a story of a young apprentice with a weakness for gambling, but the story remains unfinished. Harry Bailey, noting that the day is getting on, calls on the Man of Law, who then tells a story about Constance, daughter of the Roman emperor. She endures many hardships, but her people are converted to Christianity, and her son becomes emperor. The Wife of Bath then tells the company about her five husbands before beginning a story about a knight who is sentenced to death for rape. To avoid this fate, the knight must go on a quest to find the answer to a seemingly simple question: What do women want?

After the Wife of Bath ends her tale, the Friar tells a story about a dishonest summoner, who makes a deal with a fiend from Hell and ends up being taken there. The Summoner is enraged by the tale and tells two crude stories—one short and one long—about the treachery of friars.

To calm everyone down, Harry Bailey then asks the Clerk to tell a more lighthearted story. The Clerk's story focuses on a wife of unending patience and obedience to her husband. In response to this, the Merchant tells a story about an unfaithful young wife. Harry Bailey then calls on the Squire, who begins a story about a beautiful young woman whose magic ring allows her to understand the speech of animals. His story is cut short by the Franklin, who interrupts to wonder at the beauty of the Squire's storytelling skills. Rather than allowing the Squire's story to be completed, Harry Bailey asks the Franklin to tell his story. The Franklin tells about a faithful wife who is nearly—but not quite—tricked into unfaithfulness.

Next the Physician tells a tale about a beautiful young woman who must choose between death and dishonor. It is such a tragic story that Harry Bailey calls on the Pardoner for a happier one. The Pardoner tells a story about three young men who meet Death, and this is followed by the Shipman's tale of a merchant whose wife has an affair with a monk. Then the Prioress tells of a young boy who sings, miraculously, after he is dead.

Chaucer is called upon next, and after Harry Bailey interrupts his first tale because its rhymes are terrible, Chaucer tells a story that is more of a long argument about whether revenge should be taken to repay a violent act. The Monk then tells a long string of short stories about how powerful people are brought low, and this is followed by a fable about a rooster and a fox told by the Nun's Priest. The Second Nun then tells the story of Saint Cecilia, a Christian martyr.

The company of pilgrims meets two more travelers on the road, and one, a Yeoman, tells a story about a treacherous alchemist who tricks a priest into giving him money. Next the Manciple tells a tale about an unfaithful wife and a talking crow. After this, instead of a story, the Parson gives a sermon about sin and forgiveness. Finally, Chaucer apologizes for his work and asks forgiveness of anyone who is offended by his tales.

The Canterbury Tales Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Chaucer, Bailey, and pilgrims meet at the Tabard Inn.

Rising Action

2 Riding to Canterbury, they have a story competition.

3 The Knight tells the first tale.

4 The Miller interrupts with the next tale.


5 As they ride, characters take turns telling their stories.

Falling Action

6 Near Canterbury, the Parson tells a final tale, a sermon.


7 Chaucer prays for forgiveness for his less holy writings.

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